Tired and irritable from her cross continental flight from the UK, the last straw for Cara Burrows is being sent to the wrong room in the middle of the night by hotel reception. Disturbing a teenager and a man in the room, the over reaction is completely bizarre to Cara but in the light of day, it becomes just one of those things. The purpose of Cara’s trip was to regroup her thoughts and have a well-deserved break from her insufferable family so beyond that, she’d rather just enjoy what the Arizona resort has to offer. Cara has big mental fish to fry.
There’s both highs and dips with this novel. Some of the dialogue is quite fun and the main character Cara is comically harried with all that is going on in her life. We’ve all been there. Mother and teen daughter relationships based on sarcasm are very relatable, as is the faux cheeriness you often encounter from hotel staff when all you want to do is be left alone to enjoy your holiday. Author Sophie Hannah contrives to balance all of the mayhem of hotel goers joining forces for a holiday adventure with the darker depiction of a child’s murder.
As the abduction/murder plot is rather over worked, you will need to check your reality radar (and eyerolling) at the door in order to complete this read. As a beach towel novel, DID YOU SEE MELODY may have served a little better. As a crime novel, it’s a little oddball. It needs a little more darkness, or a little more lightness to slide home successfully in either category. Whether you are new to this author of an existing fan you will appreciate how Hannah has brought together a lot of diverse characters and made them interact in the unlikely environment of a high end desert resort.
Shades of “It’s a Mad, Mad World” for sure, but in the hands of Hannah DID YOU SEE MELODY has enough intrigue (satisfactorily largely in the hands of the women) to push (rather than sweep away) the reader through what is essentially a one location mystery. It’s a bit of frenetic trip in order to answer the burning question of the novel - did Cara really see Melody at the Swallowtail Resort?
Book review - Friend Request, Laura Marshall
Louise is on the treadmill of busyness that all single parents are forced to negotiate every day. Her son is great, her ex operates at the standard level of selfish and annoying, her fledgling business is going well and in the between-times Louise checks in and tries to keep up with everyone else’s frantic lives via Facebook. The bright shiny lives of Louise’s friends, ex colleagues and acquaintances are cyber surreal to her and the friends that were once vitally important in the school years have now become just posts on her phone screen.
FRIEND REQUEST is not a social media crime novel as expected; the platform is used instead here to spark off a chain of events. Thematically the story does not labour over the highlight reel that is social media but it is importantly touched upon, tying it neatly back into the past before Facebook etc when many of the same societal pressures existed for young people, albeit in a less technologically advanced age. Different generations facing the same age old concerns. Children being horrific to other children. The feeling of being completely alone as a teenager even though you are typically surrounded by many people on any given day of your school dictated life.
Louise’s slow disintegration is written with care, and it is the increasing of Louise second guessing herself that rachets up the tension. Is Louise actually being stalked, is she over thinking, is there real danger to Louise’s own life and that of her son now as a result of what she participated in as a child. As a reader we’re never entirely sure but there is never any doubt that Louise is fearful and keen to find out the answers to all the questions she should have asked long ago.
Laura Marshall’s debut novel reminds us why most of us move on and far beyond what we were in high school. Remove the rose-coloured glasses, and the “good old days” actually probably were anything but. The adults in this novel are being forced to remember what they were, and its uncomfortable for them to be reminded. This is a cleverly written ‘slow draw’ mystery of dread and old baggage. It will resonate with those who have had to pull back from toxic friends, online or otherwise, and with those who wish they could blank out the mistakes they have made in the past.
Book Review - Since We Fell, Dennis Lehane
The highs of Rachel’s work in journalism brought her excitement, fulfilment and an outgoing husband to boot. She could not see how that could ever change. Until one wartime assignment took Rachel’s confidence, her career and the life of a young girl.
As you read SINCE WE FELL your expectations do fluctuate as to how the rest of the novel might shape up. The first third of the book is all solid backstory and quite satisfying; so much so that if we were to wrap this novel up as a drama read without the inclusion of the murders, it would serve very well. Dennis Lehane writes masterfully with all possible confidence as a writer and this is what we expect from his works – to be entertained, challenged and by novel’s end, satisfied.
The domestic thriller is the modern juggernaut of crime fiction. It’s fantastic for readers to see the crime giants like Lehane write works for this space and with each new release there is great anticipation to see where these writers will take the genre. Here, we have a novel that powers forward for a good two thirds. After this point, we are left wondering if we missed that left-hand turn at Albuquerque.
SINCE WE FELL is almost two books. It is certainly not a suspenseful screeching thriller that spirals towards a heart thumping conclusion; rather melancholic in flavour really as we lament the choices that Rachel has made. Not every novel needs to end with a proven hero, everybody being happy, all threads resolved etc. SINCE WE FELL is almost the alternate domestic thriller, not redemptive, not nail-bitingly tense; instead measured and thoughtful with insight into how a damaged person is able adapt dramatically in order to survive.
Review - Her, Garry Disher
Beautifully and powerfully written, this is a look at the darker side of Australia's past - and particularly the status of girls and women in our society - that will stay with you long after you finish reading.
Out in that country the sun smeared the sky and nothing ever altered, except that one day a scrap man came by . . .
HER name is scarcely known or remembered. All in all, she is worth less than the nine shillings and sixpence counted into her father's hand.
She bides her time. She does her work.
Garry Disher is probably best known for two crime series – the Peninsula Crimes books centred around the police in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and the Wyatt books, recently rebooted, which focus on a career thief. But he has other strings to his bow, with both contemporary and historical “literary” novels in his long career. Her, a historical novel set in the northern Victorian countryside in the years following the turn of the century, gives a blunt and confronting look at of the time.
The main character of Her does not even have a name for the first third of the novel. In 1909, at a young age the protagonist is sold by her family to the local scrap man and for years she is only known as “You”. The scrap man already has a wife and a teenager (known as Big Girl) who he possibly acquired in a similar way and who he later gets pregnant. You is put to work, catching rabbits, making items out of scrap and rags for sale and learning how to be a pickpocket and a thief. Life is already tough for the three women and the abusive, manipulative actions of the scrap man towards them make it even tougher.
Disher follows You as she grows up in this environment. When she is older she names herself Lily and goes travelling with the scrap man, often making money for them which he then drinks or gambles away. Early on she tries to escape and is brought back by well meaning locals who choose to believe that she is feeble minded and therefore does not need to be in school. Later, when Big Girl has given birth to a daughter, Lily feels compelled to stay to protect the baby.
Throughout, Lily retains an optimism, a broader view and a belief that someday this will all end and her life will improve. And it is this optimism that prevents the story as a whole from wallowing in despair. Lily is strong and compassionate character and these qualities shine through the darkness in which she finds herself.
In the background of Her are the major events of the early twentieth century including the First World War and the Spanish flu epidemic. Disher is interested in how the scrap man can ignore these world events, so focussed is he on his short term pleasures. Lily, more in tune with the world, finds herself caught up with the wartime fervour and later, understanding the impact of the flu.
Disher effectively captures a time and place, the hardscrabble life in the Australian outback at the turn of the century, a life which was slowly disappearing as the world modernised. There are no “jolly swagmen” in this world. This is often an unflinching look at the plight of women and children and the impact of poverty. Her is, overall, an effective and moving historical novel.
Book review - The Stolen Child, Lisa Carey
Visiting the island of her ancestors for the very first time, American midwife Brigid seeks sanctuary. It may now be the mid-20th century but progress in the remote Irish community seems to have stalled somewhere around a hundred years earlier; there’s no electricity, phones, shops or amenities on this unforgiving little island. The stalwart remaining residents of St Brigids are dwindling in numbers and have been resolutely advised by mainland authorities that the end is near. The entire population of St Brigids to be relocated.
It took a bit of a mental time shift to conceive of such a community being quite so backward in the 1950’s, remote location or not. The reluctance of the island folk to join mainstream life with all its conveniences is just another factor in this eerie book of jealousy, Celtic witchery, love and hope. Not quite a mystery work and perhaps being more of a historical drama, THE STOLEN CHILD references real islands and communities that were abandoned last century to either the encroaching ocean, progress or reasons unknown. Make no mistake, the setting, events and lives in this novel are bleak and difficult to read of without being desperately sorry for anyone who had to live this life way back when.
The stories of St Brigid, woman/saint/crusader are hauntingly fascinating and the power of her influence still being exerted on this island gives a claustrophobic feeling to the narrative. These families are trapped by many things other than the geographic location of the island with its rough seas and inclement weather. They all carry the burden that their ancestors would wish them to remain working the land and raising their families on the island of St Brigids. That weight of the past is a constant in THE STOLEN CHILD. St Brigids initially was occupied by a pious all-female community of nuns, paired off under God to each other into life long relationships, with no need for anything other than the comfort of each other and their harsh but beautiful world beside the sea.
THE STOLEN CHILD has been beautifully and respectfully written, weaving the folklore of the region over an immersive story about the ties that bound people to each other and to place.
Review - Closing Down, Sally Abbott
Rural Australia is both developing and narrowing. The selling out of Australia to foreign interests has resulted in multitudes of country towns closing down and officially ceasing to exist. Centralizing the displaced has become the solution to the increasing shortage of food and resources. Generational land ownership comes to a forced end, and for the residents of the bush communities, the country of their birth is becoming unrecognizable.
Compassionately and carefully constructed to be something quite precious, CLOSING DOWN is a novel that does not attempt to create an fantastical and unbelievable landscape of future Australia. Instead, it takes concerns already present in our current debate and presents their possible eventualities, some of these being the erosion of our national identity, the issue of climate change, and the strangulation of enterprise by unnecessarily pedantic overview and the repeated lashings of bureaucratic red tape. Presenting a possible composite result of where our cultural fears may lead us, CLOSING DOWN illustrates the concerns and divides of living in a country at the bottom of the world that faces unique challenges not only due to its geographic location and harsh environment, but also because of how it may be considered to be a soft target in the global community.
There are supernatural elements in this book that add curious little vignettes to the storylines of both Clare and Roberto. They shouldn't really work in the context of what is often a gritty slog through dread and dissolution but somehow they do. If you're seeking clarity throughout your read you may often be disappointed as the novel can often seem to be meandering about rather than moving purposefully.
The specifics of living in a such an narrowing society has altered the citizens living within its constraints. In CLOSING DOWN this has not only affected the behaviours of its people of its animals as well. As society erodes, the manic activity of centralization and conformity continues to charge senselessly ahead and the bewilderment experienced by the characters in this novel is both relatable and frightening. It's a huge testament to the author that all the ingredients included in this book have not resulted in a work so bleak that there appears to be no way free of its gloom. Somewhere between the governmental guidelines are lives continuing to be lived in CLOSING DOWN, largely in ignorance, and increasingly in fear, but being lived regardless.
Review - The List by Michael Brissenden
Sidney Allen is a Fed. Part of the Australian Federal Police's K block, a unit doing whatever it takes in order to stop terrorist attacks on home soil.
But when young Muslim men on the Terror Watchlist start turning up dead, Sid and his partner, Haifa, have to work out what's going on.
Sectarian war? Drugs? Retribution? For Sid, there's nothing unclear about a bullet to the head and a severed hand. Someone is sending a message.
Coming not long after Steve Uhlmann and Peter Lewis’ Marmalade Files and hot on the heels of Tony Jones’ The Twentieth Man, Michael Brissenden, another ABC journalist, has penned a thriller. The List seems designed with the tag “ripped from the headlines” in mind. It concerns itself with the repercussions of recent wars in the Middle East, the effect it has had both on soldiers and on the recruitment of young Muslims in Australia, and more broadly Australian religious tolerance and multicultural ideals in a world dominated by terrorism and a national security debate.
In the middle of this powderkeg is the Australian Federal Police’s K-unit, a bridge between the operations of that force and Australia’s security organisation ASIO. Sid Allen and his partner Haifa Harouni, are brought in when young radicalised Muslim men in Sydney are found dead and with their right arms cut off. This is just the first act in a much deeper plot that goes back to Afghanistan and turns into a race against time for the investigators.
As is usually the case with the thriller genre, both of the main characters have skin in the game. Sid’s girlfriend and former colleague Rosie was killed in Afghanistan in the ambush that opens the book and links to the action. Meanwhile, Haifa is trying to distance herself from her family, in particular her two much older brothers, both in prison, and her other brother Hakim who has become a Muslim community spokesperson. But she still maintains connection with her family and works with the community to try and counter the rising tide of extremism among its disaffected young people.
The subject matter of this thriller lends itself to exploration of issues around terrorism, tolerance and the role of politics and the media in manipulating or shaping public opinion. While some of this discussion is well integrated into the plot, there a little too much soap-boxing as characters give their opinion and a short, indulgent portrayal of a foul mouthed, unprincipled Prime Minister using fear of terrorism to his own ends.
Brissenden gives a good feel for the parts of Sydney that host the action in The List, including the changes in culture and attitude as characters travel from one area of Sydney to another. Haifa, in a finger to her family and traditions who still live in the mainly Muslim Western suburbs around Lakemba, has moved to predominantly white Cronulla in the south of Sydney. Meanwhile, Sid lives in trendy Surry Hills, walking distance to police headquarters.
In the end, a thriller stands and falls on the amount of tension that it generates and the rate at which the pages turn. And Brissenden does a pretty good job of raising the stakes for both the city and for his protagonists. But the problem is that the plot itself does not bear too much scrutiny and ends up feeling a little flimsy and obvious by the final showdown. There are a number of layers of plot here leading to some effective, if possibly predictable twists, but in the end the resolution is fairly straightforward and it is ultimately unclear what the terrorists were trying to achieve, or why they needed this particular plot to achieve their ends.
Despite any shortcomings, The List will definitely scratch the itch of the thriller-loving crowd. And it is great to see Sydney used so effectively as the backdrop given the majority of this type of thriller is set in the Northern Hemisphere. The List is another strong new Australian crime/thriller voice in a year that has already seen some great debuts.
BOOK REVIEW - LOVE LIKE BLOOD, Mark Billingham
Whenever suspicion arises in a murder inquiry that it may be the result of an honour killing, the tasked investigators have a dual mission. One, to find out the identity of the murderers, and two, to determine who it was that arranged for the killings to be carried out. The practice of honour killings might still continue, but publicly the communities deny their occurrence.
It's always a joy to visit with Tom Thorne who makes firm decisions according to his own moral code and does not sweat the consequences of his actions. Thorne's personal life, now fourteen novels in, has settled into that of (mostly) peaceful cohabitation with his partner Helen and her son. There is less of Thorne's presence here as he shares the stage with colleague DI Tanner, and Tanner’s personal back story has greater relevance to the events of LOVE LIKE BLOOD. Thorne still shows us that he has firm personal convictions and plenty to say, but it's a more muted Thorne we encounter in this series entry.
LOVE LIKE BLOOD being the first crime novel that this reviewer has read on this type of murder, it has delivered quite an education. It beggars belief that this kind of reasoning behind the killing of family members is still considered acceptable by so many, and this is the frustration that the police convey in the novel. Billingham's author note at conclusion references a real life tragedy that is replicated in this novel, a fictional work. In different hands this novel could have been a much more bitter piece but the contemporary crime with a very old motive is delivered with Billingham's usual confidence and assurance. Whilst not being the most fast paced novel in the series, it is one of the more thoughtful and deliberate works.
BOOK REVIEW: RAGDOLL, DANIEL COLE
After attacking a child killer during his trial at court, Detective William Fawkes, known as Wolf, was publicly shamed and sent to spend time in a mental care facility. Now back on the job in Homicide, Wolf is painfully aware of a few things. First, that he was right all along. The killer he had attacked so savagely was eventually released, committing further atrocities before being recaptured. Second, that there’s a still a lot of people both in the force and out who think that Wolf has proven himself to be an unreliable loose cannon.
RAGDOLL is the debut novel of author Daniel Cole. With a second series entry due out in 2018, this is great news for readers of UK police procedurals. We're emotionally invested pretty soon into the read as RAGDOLL’s strongest inclusion is its large cast of diverse characters. Some decisions made by the police seem a bit questionable as they are marched through very quickly in order to keep momentum, but it's not that much of a pull away from the enjoyment of this read. You expect a bit of plot fluidity in a first novel and without great characters, you are unlikely to bother with book two.
Dark humour is sprinkled throughout RAGDOLL which is a welcome addition to temporarily lighten the mood away from the death and destruction. The characters don't seem to want to perform to our expectations of them and this does work to the advantage of injecting some realism into a novel that has a lot of bodies to deal with plus a fair whack of back story to roll out. Wolf is a complex character who moves through the novel by the seat of his pants, making this more of a personal journey to redemption than at first it might seem. It's fast, it's often funny, there's TV worthy gore, there is realistic emotional drama. RAGDOLL's cast is a welcome addition to the world of crime fiction and eventually we hope, to the small screen also.
Review - Wimmera, Mark Brandi
In the long, hot summer of 1989, Ben and Fab are best friends.
Growing up in a small country town, they spend their days playing cricket, yabbying in local dams, wanting a pair of Nike Air Maxes and not talking about how Fab's dad hits him or how the sudden death of Ben's next-door neighbour unsettled him. Almost teenagers, they already know some things are better left unsaid.
In 2016 the unpublished manuscript of Wimmera won the UK Crime Writers’ Association debut dagger – now it’s published and we can see why. Reviewed at Newtown Review of Books - this is mandatory reading.